What would summer be like without hot dogs grilling on the barbecue or in hand at a ball game? Yet with all the bad news about processed meats, it’s hard to enjoy a hot dog these days without guilt. Hot dog sales are down, though one can hardly say that popular alternatives at the ballpark (cheesy nachos come to mind) are healthier. Is it possible to choose a healthier hot dog? With a little effort, yes.
The case against hot dogs
Most processed meats, including most hot dogs, are cured with salt, smoke, or nitrites to inhibit bacterial growth. Nitrates also give the meats a characteristic flavor and pink color.
In 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a report stating that processed meat should be listed as a human carcinogen because observational studies indicate that nitrates are linked with colorectal cancer and possibly stomach cancer.
The American Institute of Cancer Research puts processed meats in its "never eat" category, except for special occasions. It cites on its website three ways in which eating processed meats might increase the risk of colorectal cancer:
- The nitrates/nitrites used in processed meats
- Smoking the meats or cooking them at high temperatures (such as grilling), both of which can produce potentially carcinogenic chemicals, such as heterocyclic aromatic amines and N-nitroso compounds
- Heme iron, the type of iron found in red meat
Eating processed meats has also been linked with heart disease and type 2 diabetes. A meta-analysis published in 2015 in the British Journal of Nutrition found that people who ate the largest amounts of processed meat had significantly higher rates of death from cardiovascular disease as well as from other causes.
In another meta-analysis published in Circulation in 2010, Harvard researchers found that each daily serving of processed meat eaten was linked with a 42 percent higher risk of heart disease and a 19 percent higher risk of diabetes. And in those studies that looked specifically at different types of processed meat, each serving of hot dogs doubled the risk of diabetes. As to the mechanism, it might be the sodium content and nitrates, which can impair blood vessel dilation and reduce the secretion of insulin.
But the observational studies examined in those meta-analyses do not prove cause and effect. They merely show that people who eat a lot of processed meats also have a high risk of cancer and heart disease. There may be something else about those people that increases their risk.
How to choose a healthier hot dog
It’s not easy to find a healthier hot dog, but it’s possible. Typically hot dogs are loaded with sodium and saturated fat. One Ball Park Beef Frank contains 190 calories, 16 grams of fat, 7 grams of saturated fat, and 550 mg of sodium—a quarter of the maximum daily recommendation for sodium.
As consumers demand healthier dogs, some manufacturers are responding. Peruse your supermarket’s hot dog section and you'll find packages labeled “nitrate/nitrite free” or “uncured.” These hot dogs rely on natural sources of nitrate, often celery juice, extract, or powder. (It’s not clear if these natural sources of nitrates make any difference in health risks because they’re too new on the market to have been carefully studied.)
There are also hot dogs made with turkey or chicken instead of beef or pork, or made with organic meat. Check the label carefully because these hot dogs may still be high in sodium, saturated fat, and nitrates/nitrites.
Here are two tips to help you enjoy the occasional hot dog with less guilt:
1. Avoid jumbo or stadium-size hot dogs. Some stadiums sell 18-inch corn dogs! And jumbo beef hot dogs usually contain twice as much fat, sodium, and calories as regular-sized franks.
2. When shopping, read the labels. Ideally, one hot dog should have less than 100 calories, no more than 6 grams of fat (and no more than one-third of that as saturated fat), and no more than 300-400 grams of sodium.
Each region has its own artisanal sausage and hot dog makers, but some healthier brands are easy to find in most supermarkets:
- Applegate Farms Natural Uncured Beef Hot Dog has only 70 calories, 6 grams of fat (2 grams saturated) and 330 mg of sodium. Their chicken dogs are even lower in fat and saturated fat.
- Boar’s Head Lite Beef Frankfurters contain 90 calories, 6 grams of fat, 2.5 grams saturated fat, and 270 mg of sodium.
You might also consider trying a meatless hot dog. The soy-based Tofu Pups are tasty and contain only 300 mg of sodium.
7 ways to make your hot dog more nutritious
You can boost your hot dog’s nutrient quotient by choosing your toppings wisely:
- Ketchup, mustard, relish, and sauerkraut all contain sodium, so go light on these condiments or look for low-sodium versions.
- Jalapeño and banana peppers add zip to your hot dog without the sodium. They also contain vitamin C, potassium, beta-carotene, and fiber, as well as other beneficial nutrients. You can also add a few drops of a hot sauce of your choice, being mindful of the sodium content (a mere teaspoon of Sriracha sauce has 100 mg of sodium).
- Herbs and spices like cilantro, scallion, and cumin also boost flavor without relying on the salt shaker. Combine with raw onions and chopped tomatoes. If you crave dressing, mix with a bit of nonfat or low-fat sour cream.
- Top your dog with raw onion instead of sautéed onions, which have extra calories from the oil they are cooked in.
- For added nutrition, top your dog with diced avocados, chopped tomatoes, and shredded cabbage.
- Sprinkle low-fat sharp cheddar instead of drizzling a fatty cheese dip on your hot dog. The intense flavor means you won’t need much.
- Wrap your hot dog in a whole-wheat bun instead of the typical white bread bun. You’ll get around 3 grams of healthy fiber.
We can’t pretend hot dogs are a health food. But if you love them, there’s no reason to worry if you eat them occasionally. Studies that have linked hot dogs with cancer and heart disease looked at the diets of people who ate a lot of processed foods. So enjoy a hot dog a few times in the summer, at a BBQ or ball game. As Ben Franklin famously said: “Moderation in all things—including moderation.”
Also see How Bad Is Meat, Really?